In the realm of international sports, the Olympics have long been a symbol of unity, bringing athletes from diverse backgrounds and cultures together to represent the “best of the best” of their countries.

However, President Joe Biden’s endorsement on Wednesday of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s request to compete in lacrosse under its own sovereign flag at the 2028 Olympics represents a dangerous shift in American policy and establishes a path toward further balkanization.

Biden’s tacit support for a breakaway sovereignty inside the borders of the United States was the boldest land acknowledgement ever, at a time when land acknowledgements are all the rage in liberal politics.

While the Haudenosaunee Confederacy sees itself as a separate league of tribal nations, this presidential move could set a troublesome precedent for the future of the Olympic Games themselves.

Some background is in order: The Haudenosaunee Confederacy has asked the International Olympics Committee if its lacrosse team can compete as its own country during the 2028 Olympics.

Also called the Six Nations, they were originally various Iroquoian-speaking tribes in a peace-pact league across an eastern portion of North America, including Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora.

Few speak the ancestral languages today, but the confederacy maintains itself as a separatist organization and says that treaties from early days of the United States are valid.

In 2021, the confederacy went so far as to block access to polling stations that it said were located on land belonging to the confederacy in Canada. The Canadian government backed down and moved the polling station somewhere else, so that tribal members could, ironically, vote in Canadian elections.

Other race-and tribe-based groups in America have sought to compete in the Olympics under separate flags, most notably Hawaiian surfers who want to compete under the Hawaiian flag, rather than the American flag, because they claim Hawaii is the birthplace of surfing (although some Polynesian Islanders may disagree).

Hawaiians will surely now revive their request to compete under a non-USA flag. If it’s good enough for the Haudenosaunee lacrosse players, it’s good enough for Hawaiian surfers to compete for the Hawaiian Kingdom, right?

Although the International Olympic Committee has earlier recognized some U.S. territories, such as American Samoa, Guam, and Puerto Rico, as “Olympic nations,” Hawaii’s application to form a separate Hawaiian Kingdom team from the U.S. surfing team was correctly denied by the IOC.

Then there’s Quebec, where winter athletes have sought to field their own hockey teams under a separate flag. But the way the Canadian federation is organized, Quebec does not have constitutional powers that would allow it to act as a true national government.

The same is true for tribal groups across America, which have certain aspects of sovereignty but that are ultimately governed by the U.S. Constitution.

There is no doubt that in the world of lacrosse, the Haudenosaunee Nationals team is revered. The men’s team ranks third in the world, and the women’s team ranks eighth. The World Lacrosse organization recognizes the teams as separate from the U.S. teams.

But since the 1990s, the Olympic charter has made it clear that nation states must be independent and recognized by the international community in order to have standing at the Olympic games.

There’s more to unpack in this part of the country about the land-based disputes that go back centuries than can be done in this column, but this is not just about stickball.

Will the IOC recognize the Haudenosaunee Confederacy as its own sovereign country? If so, what will this mean for tribal groups in other countries, which may want to follow suit?

What exceptions the committee makes for U.S. tribes it will be asked to make for Māori of New Zealand, Aboriginals of Australia, Aztecs and Mayans of Mexico and Central America, or people “who got there first” in any country.

The International Olympics Committee should not simply take advice from President Biden, who has a history of scoring on his own goal.

If the IOC starts recognizing countries within countries, it will inject politics into what is supposed to be a nonpolitical activity at a time when world peace is already in a most fragile state.

Suzanne Downing on December 10, 2023

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